JULY 2015
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How to Read a College Website

By Robert A.G. LeVine

For all students seeking to enter college or graduate school, admissions websites are required reading. However, one must learn to read between and behind the lines to understand what a college is really like.

The first thing to realize is that colleges and universities write websites with a definite purpose: to attract candidates to apply. Remember that selective colleges – even public universities that you might consider to be “backup schools” – don’t offer admission to every candidate. They all have more applicants than they need to fill their classes.

Why do they want more applicants? Increasing the number of applicants means increasing selectivity. When more and more students apply for a limited number of spots, the possibility of receiving an offer of admission decreases. Because higher selectivity (a lower acceptance rate) results in greater prestige, alumni donations rise when more students are rejected. Money from alumni is a major part of university economics, so colleges work hard to collect more applicants. For this reason, Stanford, Harvard, and most other highly-selective colleges have purposefully endeavored to lower their acceptance rates. As a result, Harvard received $1.4 Billion in alumni donations in 2014 alone.

Admissions websites, as well as printed materials, live presentations and information sessions should be recognized for what they are: marketing opportunities for the universities. They are carefully drafted, edited, revised and approved for the primary purpose of attracting more applicants.

They are also largely misunderstood by young readers. Each university speaks in its own dialect. What a liberal arts college thinks is “leadership” may not be the same definition as that used by a religious college or a military academy. Applicants tend to read from their own perspective rather than attempting to understand what the schools are trying to communicate.

The starting point for deciphering admissions websites and materials is to see things from the schools’ perspectives. To do this, you must think like the authors, not like a reader. Why did they place certain ideas before others? Why did they use their specific words and phrases? Look carefully to see subtle language differences within a website, and ask yourself why they chose to change the words subtly. Compare what is stated (and not stated) in one admissions website with the words and structure of other colleges’ websites. Looking for differences will help you understand the intent and meaning of their language.

Recognize that colleges and graduate schools like to present numbers to “sell” you on their universities. Statistics can be powerfully persuasive. However, statistics are also misleading. Colleges that use numbers to lead you to believe that applying for early admission is “easier” than applying for regular admission are doing so for their purposes, not yours. Are the numbers accurate? Technically, yes. Do they indicate a different admissions opportunity for most applicants? No.

The pool of early applicants is not the same as the regular-action pool. For example, recruiting athletes is a very competitive game, and thus college coaches must collect their athletes as early as possible so that they can fill their team rosters. Therefore, most collegiate athletes apply “early” to schools that have already whispered that they are “likely” to be admitted. Because recruited athletes generally have lower SAT and ACT scores than the rest of the applicant pool, and because they are almost 100% guaranteed to be accepted once a coach selects them, admissions statistics that compare “early” and “regular” candidates are misleading. The truth is that admissions officers do not usually use different criteria for accepting students based upon when they apply.

If you wish to learn more about a school from a less-biased perspective, look for what students say instead of what administrators say. College newspapers are excellent sources of unfiltered information and are readily available online. In addition, an e-mail or phone call to a college student who participates in your favorite extracurricular activity (the contact info is available online) can provide extremely valuable insight.

Robert A.G. Levine, president of Selective College Consulting Inc., can be reached at (813) 391-3760, email BobLeVine@SelectiveCC.com or visit www.SelectiveCollegeConsulting.com



The Competition Conundrum

By Anu Varma Panchal

A couple of years ago, my daughter made it onto her school’s math bowl team. She was thrilled, ready to do battle and bring home the honors at her very first competition. On the morning of the event, my heart filled with pride as I saw her and her teammates in their oversized team T-shirts, beaming for our cameras.

An hour later, I was a nervous wreck. I sat in the audience at Trinkle Center in Plant City, stomach churning and palms sweating, one eye on the relentlessly ticking timer, another eye on the team in their little huddle, so small and stalwart as they furiously worked out problems in that giant room. The tension in the room was palpable as parents scribbled answers on notepads and calculated rankings. When the winners were announced, I went almost limp with relief as her school’s name was called.

See, my foray into competing peaked at age 1 when my mother entered me in a neighborhood Baby Queen competition. Somewhere in the family albums there’s a black and white photo of me with a giant trophy, wearing a maxi skirt and copious amounts of kajal (In my defense, it was the ‘70s). Since that wild moment of glory, it’s been a gentle and contented slide down to adulthood, without too many cringe-worthy stints in the limelight.

Then came parenthood and the confounding realization that our children are not, in fact, our mirror images. Despite my murmuring that cooperation is better than competition and that really, everyone is a winner, the glint in my daughter’s eye when she sees a prize worth winning has only sharpened. The school system here is a treasure trove of battlefields for the competitively inclined —STEM fair, speech competitions, arts competitions, Battle of the Books — and my daughter threw herself stormily into the fray, again and again.

As for me, I worried. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure. Maybe not making a team or winning a trophy or flaming out in public venues would scar her psyche. Maybe by giving her encouragement, I was falling into the cliché of the Tiger Mom. Maybe, I thought, her life would be easier in the peaceful equilibrium of the sidelines, which I happily inhabit.

Maybe all that worry is a waste of time.

“Parents think kids are pure reflection of them — they are not,” says Dr. Joseph Sclafani, professor of psychology at the University of Tampa. “All a parent can do is give nurturance, love, support, guidance and control. The child grows in that scaffolding, and they bloom as they bloom.”

Much depends on the temperament of the child, Sclafani says. Competition can make anxious children more anxious and even frustrated. Perfectionist children can put increasing pressure on themselves to win, despite parents’ exhortations to pull back and relax. Conversely, a child who never wants to compete may be showing a lack of motivation and should understand that it can be directly linked to results, Sclafani says (ouch). Maybe these kids can view competition as against themselves; he likes to use the analogy of a golf course where players try and beat the course rather than each other. The important thing is that there’s a conversation and that kids understand that their parents love them no matter what, and that they appreciate it when their children try their best.

“Competition is a healthy value in children as long as it’s managed properly,” says Sclafani. “It helps motivate people to do more. You have to understand competition and the importance of competition in bringing out the best in people. But it has to be done in fairness, in good sportsmanship.”

I have to admit that I am still unable to actually relax during a competition. The recent Battle of the Books nearly sunk me; by the second round, all I could do was plug my ears and whisper hoarsely to my fellow team mom to tell me when it was over.

But we parents are not the ones in the arena; our kids are. As they progress through the relatively low-stakes world of elementary school, I’ve watched my daughter and her peers slowly gather strength and resilience as they emerge from each competitive experience. They’re learning modesty in success and grace in defeat. They’re learning the delicate dance of teamwork — when to take charge, when to respect another’s lead and how to give credit where credit is due. Most importantly, they’ve learned that while the prospect of failure can be daunting, merely having the courage to try out is a victory in itself.

Anu Varma Panchal is a mother of two and owner of www.YourEditingSolutions.com

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